How I Used Cover Letters to my Advantage in a Competitive Job Field

By Hannah Coleman, Operations Coordinator, Career Center

Getting a cover letter right can be difficult, especially when the style and tone vary depending on the job and the company you are applying for. When cover letters are done well though, the payoff can be crucial to prompt employers to give your application more than just a cursory glance. 

I have a story that I like to tell people who are skeptical about the importance of cover letters: 

About a year ago, I applied for a job as an Editorial Assistant at a well-known independent publishing company. I knew my application was a long-shot, as jobs in the book publishing industry are scarce and highly competitive. Still, I had 2 years of relevant experience, and was hoping to finally get my foot in the door to move up into a more active role in the industry. 

In my cover letter, after summarizing my relevant experience, I included a paragraph at the end of my letter stating why I admired the company and some specifics on why I was interested in the types of books that they published. I brought up projects that I had worked on in my previous role and talked about similar projects I saw the company was currently working on. I also brought up my own career goals and why I thought working at this company would accomplish those aims. Because I really did invest in the projects I had worked on in my previous job, and personally enjoyed them, I tried to make sure that interest showed in my letter. 

The next day, I got an email from a manager expressing interest. This part of their response really stood out to me:

“Your experiences and interest that you shared in your cover letter immediately stood out to us. Although you may not have some of the technical skills we are looking for, we would like to discuss options with you in an interview.” 

I was grateful for the interview opportunity even though I knew I had a little less experience than needed. I was glad that I went ahead and applied anyway, because you never know! While I didn’t end up getting the job, the managers were still impressed with my effort and interest and they offered me some freelance work. Although this was a pretty rare instance, it made me hopeful that all the effort I was putting into my cover letters was starting to pay off. 

With that said, here are some things I have picked up on through my job search experiences that I personally find helpful: 

Research matters!

A big mistake that a lot of people make is not customizing their cover letter to reflect that they have done research on that specific company. If you are sending out the same generic cover letter for every job application, then it’s not likely to get much attention. The cover letter is your chance to prove beyond your resume that you have a personal and professional stake in the job or company. 

Research the company’s mission and goals, get familiar with the current staff and their roles so you can reference them when necessary, and understand the company’s work and look into their projects. Use that knowledge to highlight if you’ve worked on something similar or applicable, and explain what nuance or perspective you could bring to the company’s current aims.

Specificity is key 

Be as specific as possible when you explain the utility of your job experience. Avoid common phrases like: “Based on this job description, I would be well suited for this role and have all of the capabilities listed in your requirements.” This doesn’t tell us about your strengths. Instead, be specific so employers know exactly what your abilities are. For example: “In the job description, I notice your preference for candidates who have experience using Adobe Suite. In the past year working as an Editorial Assistant, I used InDesign and Photoshop on a weekly basis to create page layouts for manuscripts and to touch up and edit photos for final production.” 

This helps hiring managers feel more confident about your skills and experience when inviting you for an interview. Hiring managers do not want to have to dig to find out if you meet their standards. 

Have someone review your cover letter 

This one seems like a given, but it surprises me how often I hear people say they skip this step. Errors in a cover letter or resume will typically remove you from consideration pretty quickly. It is always a good idea to have someone look over your cover letter, even if you think it’s fairly polished. For particularly important applications, revising multiple drafts has served me well. 

DePaul Career Center has skilled and resourceful career advisors that can give you feedback on cover letters. You can also check out the Writing Center as they can also provide hands-on feedback for writing style and grammar. 

Detailed cover letters are fuel for great interview conversations

In the interview that I mentioned earlier, the hiring managers brought up content from my cover letter several times, which led to productive conversations that allowed them to understand me and my interests better. I find that when hiring managers are able to converse with you in an interview more freely, then you are more likely to move forward in the interviewing process because you have had a memorable interaction with them and connected with them on a deeper level. This also allows your personality to show. In your cover letter, if you provide interviewers with just enough of a doorway to ask follow-up questions in an interview later, then this will help spark that conversation. For example, in my cover letter, I wrote this about a current editorial project I was working on: 

“A project that will be published this spring, Words is a Powerful Thing by Brian Daldorph, is a book written by a creative writing instructor and poet at the University of Kansas. His book recounts his experiences teaching creative writing at a county jail in rural Kansas. His own commentary, experiences and reflections are intermingled with some of the inmates’ own poetry and interviews. In the early stages, I worked with the author and editors closely to provide writing style suggestions and critiques on organization and flow of the manuscript.” 

This type of commentary isn’t always entirely necessary for a cover letter, but it completely depends on the context. In this case, I wanted to introduce the type of work I was doing without oversharing details. In the interview, the hiring managers asked me to discuss this project and similar ones I was working on. We had great conversations about the project itself and it was a great moment to connect with them on our shared enthusiasm for this work. 

Cover letters can be a surprisingly powerful tool if you can use some of these tips to work in your favor! 

5 Career Fair Prep Tips

By: Lorne Bobren, Technology & Design Career Community Advisor

The DePaul Career Center hosts several job fairs each year. The companies who attend are eager to learn about your qualifications and why you may be a good fit for their company. Whether you are looking for a full-time job or an internship, here are some tips on how to best prepare for the next fair:

1. Create an action plan

Job fairs at DePaul can have as many as 40-60 companies attend. It’s unrealistic to think you’ll connect with all companies attending, so the best approach is to review the company list on Handshake and make a list of 3-5 target employers. These companies should be your primary focus while attending the fair.

2. Research

One of the worst things you can do at a fair is ask a company, “What positions are you hiring for?” This information is easy to find on Handshake and the company’s website. Once you’ve created your target list of employers, you should review the company’s website, mission, social media, and job openings. This information will let you naturally converse with companies at the fair rather than asking questions that are found online. Show the recruiter you did your homework and that you’re genuinely interested in the company.

3. Have your resume reviewed

Having a polished resume prior to the fair is essential. Some companies may host on-campus interviews a few days after the fair or look to bring in candidates for onsite interviews a few days after the fair. The best way to ensure you’re prepared is by visiting the Career Center prior to the fair to have your resume reviewed.

4. Develop a 30 second pitch

You’ll have limited time to speak with recruiters at job fairs, so it’s best to develop a quick pitch that summarizes your skills and interest in the company. The purpose of an elevator pitch is to create a brief, impactful message that touches on the following key points:

  1. You! Your most important characteristics and interests
  2. What you can offer to the employer and workforce
  3. Your goal in connecting with the individual or company you’re pitching

Think about what qualities you possess that will leave an impression and bundles your strengths, what you can offer, and your intentions.

5. Connect with alumni mentors

DePaul’s ASK network is a great way to calm nerves and relax prior to the attending the fair. Alumni mentors are available before and during the fair to help with crafting your elevator pitch, resume reviews, and tips on how to approach employers.

 

Careers fairs may seem a bit intimidating, but creating an action plan and following through that plan is the best way to enhance your experience!

3 Ways Storytelling Can Enhance Your Interview

Whenever we meet someone new, we’re actively engaged in storytelling. We start by introducing ourselves and, depending on whom we’re meeting, cater our story to that particular audience. This can become tricky when we’re engaging with potential employers; what should we include in our stories, and what types of stories do employers want to hear?

Storytelling in interviews doesn’t simply mean providing a storybook narrative for all of your answers. Employers are looking for specific types of stories, and these can vary depending on the type of question being asked. Below we’ve identified three specific ways in which storytelling can enhance your interview, while highlighting the specific ways employers prefer these stories to be told.

Resume Questions

When an employer brings you in for an interview, it means you’ve submitted a strong resume. Since a resume is often what gets you through the door, the employer will most definitely have questions about the content in the document. Therefore, it’s essential that you can tell a story about everything on your resume, including those volunteer and extracurricular experiences you may have only been involved with for a few months (or days, or hours).

It’s essential that you can tell a story about everything on your resume, including those volunteer and extracurricular experiences…

This doesn’t mean that you have to prepare a story with a beginning, middle and end for everything on your resume. It means being prepared to justify the inclusion of everything on your resume, since we can’t anticipate what an employer will want to know more about. If you choose to include a list of relevant courses on your resume, you should be prepared to talk more about each of those courses in case an employer has a question about a specific one. For example, an employer may ask: “I see on your resume that you took a course called ‘Advertising & Society.’ What was that class about?” Take some time to review everything on your resume so that, if an employer asks a question about something, you can answer more thoughtfully than “I thought it would make me look good!”

Behavioral Interview Questions

One of the most common types of questions you’ll encounter in interviews are behavioral questions, which are designed to understand how you’ve handled a particular scenario in a previous role. These questions are popular with employers, as one of the strongest indicators of a candidate’s future performance in a position comes from understanding how they handled similar situations in the past. Behavioral questions require you to tell a specific story from a past job, class or extracurricular experience, but employers are looking for a specific structure to this story. Specifically, you should answer these questions by touching on four key areas: the situation, the task, the action, and the result. Together, these make up a formula best remembered as the acronym STAR. Let’s break this down with an example.

Behavioral Question: “Tell me about a time when you had to address an angry customer?”

  • Situation — Set the scene for the employer (e.g. Where were you working when you addressed this angry customer, and why was he/she upset?)
  • Task — The goal you set to accomplish in this situation (e.g. To diffuse the situation and ensure the customer leaves satisfied.)
  • Action — The transferable skills you implemented to achieve the task and address the situation. (e.g. Listening, communication and conflict resolution skills would make sense here.)
  • Result — The happy ending to your story! (e.g. “After implementing the above skills, the customer was pleased and left satisfied.”)

Following the STAR formula when answering behavioral interview questions will ensure that you are not only telling a complete story, but that you are telling a story that includes the key points an employer wants to hear.

Situational Interview Questions

There’s some confusion about what the difference is between behavioral and situational questions, and it can be best described as the following: while behavioral questions put a spotlight on how’ve handled scenarios in the past, situational questions are concerned with how you would hypothetically handle scenarios in the future, particularly those that pertain to the specific position you’re applying for. Examples of situational questions include “How would you sell our product to a resistant customer?” and “What strategies might you implement to increase our followers on Instagram?”

…behavioral questions put a spotlight on how you’ve handled scenarios in the past, situational questions are concerned with how you would hypothetically handle scenarios in the future…

In answering these questions, you don’t want to simply say you would do “x, y, and z.” It helps to provide some context for why you would respond in this particular way. Maybe you tried something similar in the past that proved successful (e.g. “In my previous job I would do x when I encountered resistant customers, and it was very successful. Here’s how I might implement something similar with your clients…”). Maybe you’ve conducted research about the industry that could influence your answer (e.g. “I read in Advertising Age that x strategy has been very effective in increasing social media followers. Here’s how I might implement something similar with your Instagram page…”). Ultimately, situational questions are great opportunities to share your ideas for how you would succeed in the role you’re applying for, and doing so by telling a story based on your own (or other’s) experiences will help drive these answers home.

Additional Resources for Interview Success

It can take practice to feel comfortable with storytelling in interviews, but the Career Center has a number of ways to help! You can meet with your career advisor to learn more about interviewing tips, or take part in a practice interview with an alumnus through our Alumni Sharing Knowledge (ASK) program. We also have a terrific interview prep tool called InterviewStream where you can practice answering common behavioral and situational questions. Take advantage of one or all of the resources to ensure that you are telling the types of stories employers want to hear!

What Recruiters Like to See on a Resume & What Makes Them Cringe

By: Kristen A. Urhausen-Kummerer, Alumni Sharing Knowledge (ASK) mentor and former Big Four recruiting and operations leader

I have read thousands of resumes in my career with the Big Four and have seen all styles, formats and lengths. Having a resume with the right information, format and presentation can make or break your chances of grabbing the attention of a recruiter. There is no doubt that resume writing is one of the hardest things to do. It takes time and patience, but if done right, you can capture a recruiter’s attention and score an interview that will help you get one step closer to your dream job.

Here is a list of five things that are eye-catching to recruiters:

1. Notable accomplishments vs. a list of responsibilities  

When you include notable accomplishments, you are immediately showing the reader how you added value to your current/past employers, and how you could do the same for their company. Notable accomplishments should include quantifiable information, if possible, and a concise explanation of how you achieved the accomplishment. For example, the line, “Helped company save $300K in expenses annually” should be edited to say, “Key contributor in helping company save $300K in expenses, annually, by re-negotiating all vendor contracts and implementing an automated approval process workflow for all expenses.” A list of responsibilities doesn’t help sell you, your skills or capabilities is what will get your foot in the door.

2. Modern and slick format  

The format of your resume must be clean and easy to read. If your resume doesn’t have a format that is easy to follow, you will lose the reader’s attention in the first few seconds. Consider these guidelines:

  • Make sure your name jumps off the page by using at 20 pt. font
  • Include a bolded headline under your contact information (i.e., Innovative Information Technology Consulting Director)
  • Stray away from Times New Roman or Book Antiqua as the font. Use a font such as Cambria, Arial or Helvetica
  • Bold important information at the beginning of each notable accomplishment in an effort to encourage the reader to continue reading

3. Simplified contact information.

The key contact information to share is your name, e-mail address, phone number and a link to your LinkedIn profile. There is no need to include your physical address.

4. Career summaries that highlight expertise, experience vs. soft skills

Most candidates highlight their ability to communicate, get along with people and build relationships in their career summaries. Although this is important, recruiters want to know what your sweet spot is. When people think of you professionally, what comes to mind? If you are an IT consultant, you probably have strong experience assessing current information system infrastructures and providing custom solutions that meet client needs and business objectives.

5. Tables

Use tables to highlight technical skills and other competencies vs. including them in a bulleted list.

Now that you know what recruiters like to see on resumes, here are five things that make recruiters cringe:

1. Resumes longer than two pages

Recruiters spend an average of less than one minute reviewing a resume, and will most likely put your resume in the “no thank you” pile if it is longer than two pages.

2. Detailed company descriptions about current, past employers 

If you choose to include a company description, try to limit it to one sentence. Including more than one sentence takes up valuable white space and will lose the interest of the reader.

3. Objective statements

Adding an objective statement is out-of-date and will not help you stand out from the crowd. By applying for an open position, you are implying that you are looking for a new opportunity that will utilize your skills and career interests at a specific company.

4. References available upon request

Make it easier on employers, and yourself, by offering your references early on. In some cases, employers will automatically ask for references either on the job application, or after they have decided to extend you an offer of employment.

5. Misspellings and grammatical errors

Be sure to double and triple check your resume. Print it out and read each word out loud to make sure that it reads perfectly. Consider sending it to a friend to review as well. You need to demonstrate to the reader that you pay close attention to detail.

So, how does your resume stack up?


Kristen A. Urhausen-Kummerer received her Bachelor of Science in commerce from DePaul in 1992 and has 22 years of Big Four recruiting and operations leadership experience at KPMG LLP, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and Arthur Andersen & Co, SC. She has interviewed and hired hundreds of professionals ranging from administrative assistants to senior executives over the years. Kristen is currently an independent resume designer and career advisor who focuses on partnering with job seekers as they prepare for their job search. She provides job seekers with insight on current resume trends, prepares them for interviews and helps to increase their confidence. Kristen is also an active ASK member and has helped students prepare for job fairs and interviews, in addition to providing career guidance and mentoring.

Marketing Your Service Experiences to Potential Employers

By: Mackenzie Canfield, DePaul University English and sociology major ’17 and peer career advisor

For many of us, service is a critical part of our experiences as DePaul students. It’s an opportunity to not only engage with various Chicago communities, but also build lasting, impactful relationships with individuals outside of our immediate DePaul networks. However, as it comes time to apply for internships and full-time positions, it is often hard to envision how these service experiences play into our professional goals.

While the context is different, many of the skills developed through your time spent volunteering are transferable, and therefore marketable to a potential employer. These are skills that will stand out on your resume and cover letter, highlighting who you are as an internship or job candidate.

Skill Identification

First, ask yourself, how do I engage with the communities I’m working with during my service experiences? Often times, the initial response is, I help students in Back of the Yards with their homework, or, I play games with residents at a Garfield Park senior center. While these responses are certainly true, in order to best market service experiences to a potential employer we’ll have to dig a little deeper to pull out the more valuable and unique skillsets being utilized.

Let’s work with the first example of tutoring students in Back of the Yards. Tutoring, as a skill, may be marketable for some professional positions, however, if you’re pursuing accounting, marketing, health sciences, or any other number of fields, it might be less important. Tutoring does not have to be the skill we focus on, though. Let’s think: What else does tutoring students in Back of the Yards involve? It involves listening to students’ stories in order to best help them, supporting full-time staff by continuing to live out the mission of the school or organization, as well as initiating and planning different events for the students based on what they—and the community members—need.

Listening, supporting, initiating, and planning. Those are four skills that an employer within any industry would like to see displayed on your resume or cover letter. Additionally, they will take note of the fact that you were intentional of the skills you mentioned and that you took the time to think of your experiences in the context of the position you’re applying for.

To work on further identifying the skills you’ve used and developed through your service experiences, consider these common transferable skills utilized within volunteering contexts:

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-11-57-36-am

Skill Communication

Now that you’ve identified the transferable skills used in your service experiences, the next step is thinking about how to communicate those to an employer in your application documents.

In terms of your resume, your service experience probably best fits under “Additional Experience” or “Volunteering Experience,” depending on how you’ve organized your resume. Regardless, we will communicate the transferable skills we’ve just identified through descriptive bullet points listed underneath the volunteering experience.

You’ll begin each bullet point with one of the transferable skills you’ve identified. This can be thought of as what you did. From there, you’ll want to add detail to the bullet point so it also includes how you did it, as well as why you did it. This way, the potential employer will best understand your skills and experiences.

With formatting, here is how our tutoring in the Back of the Yards example might end up looking:

Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, Chicago, IL — Sept. 2015 – Present

Volunteer Tutor

  • Listen to students during tutoring sessions in order to develop lesson plans and activities that best engage them as they prepare to apply for colleges
  • Support full-time teachers and staff by providing supplemental instruction and one-on-one advising to students with low attendance records
  • Initiate and plan school-wide events and open dialogues that allow students to identify and solve issues within their Back of the Yards community

When thinking about your cover letter, if you’ve had one or more internships, completed a long-term research project, or studied abroad through a relevant program, it is very possible that you might not mention your service experience. However, if you’re looking for a way to demonstrate relevant skills in one of your cover letter’s body paragraphs, a consistent volunteering experience is a great opportunity to do that.

First, take a look at and highlight the skills being mentioned in the job description. Then, ask yourself, how have I demonstrated these skills through my service experiences? Your answer will most likely connect back to some of the ideas displayed through the bullet points in your resume, however we want to remember that your cover letter is a chance to say more than what’s on your resume. So, rather than just filling a body paragraph with the same skills mentioned in your bullet points, go into greater detail about one or two of those bullet points, thus further focusing on specific skills the employer is looking for.

Volunteering with different communities can be experiences that end up defining us, and how we live our lives. However, it’s common that we instinctively separate our service from our professional development. This doesn’t have to be the case. By considering the transferable skills we develop within service, we can best market them to potential employers.

Is Your Resume Career Fair Ready? Let’s Find Out

By: Lynn Gibson, Alumni Sharing Knowledge (ASK) mentor and DePaul University marketing graduate

DePaul’s first major career fair of the season is days away—are you ready? Your time with each recruiter will be limited. So, using every moment strategically is a worthy goal. Making a great first impression will “condition” the recruiter to expect a good conversation; so, appropriate attire, good posture, eye contact, a firm handshake and a smile are your first steps toward achieving that goal.

After the introductions, it’s time to get down to business. This is where your resume takes center stage and provides the foundation for answering the one question in every recruiter’s mind: Why should we call you in for an interview?

When anyone looks at a written document, they start at the top. And, just like your “visual” first impression conditions a recruiter, so does what they read first. So, how does your resume create a positive impact that influences recruiters desire to know more? It starts with a compelling summary that highlights your strengths and values.

Here are two before and after summary sections. Can you see the transformations?

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-3-19-15-pm

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-3-22-37-pm

While your summary is the key to getting recruiters’ attention, your bullet points are what reel them in, and what will get you the interview. These points should validate your brand and potential to add value in two ways:

  • They define the scope of responsibilities and the types of challenges you have faced in past experiences.
  • They identify specific accomplishments and achievements.

Here are examples that illustrate ways to make the most impact in the experience section of your resume.

Accounting Intern

Recorded and tracked financial transactions using QuickBooks Software. Wrote checks, made deposits, and prepared monthly bank reconciliations to prevent accounting errors. Helped prepare an annual financial report, enabling a firm to assess its financial status and compute tax obligations. Computed taxes owed and prepared a corporate tax return using Drake Tax Software.

  • Met all deadlines and expectations by accurately completing a wide variety of accounting functions (example of value added)

Staff Accountant (Entry level)

Completed bookkeeping, billing and monthly bank reconciliations for four high-value companies as well as monthly payroll and quarterly employment tax returns for 15 companies. Performed analytical reviews of financial statements to ensure accuracy and prepared tax returns including 1120, 1120S, 1065, 1040, and additional forms for 50+ clients

  • Generated a 10% increase in company revenue by cultivating strong client relationships through outstanding accounting service, professional demeanor and communication skills
  • Successfully won 10+ new clients by demonstrating ability to perform tests of internal controls, identify and resolve issues, and make recommendations to enhance business efficiency
  • Professional Skills: QuickBooks, Excel, individual and corporate tax returns, sales tax, payroll tax, bookkeeping

Allow these examples to guide you as you prepare for upcoming career fairs and fine-tune your resume. Although what is covered in this article is limited, your resources are not! Make sure to contact the Career Center and Alumni Sharing Knowledge (ASK) for resume and interview help before and during your next job fair visit.


Reminder: To connect with Lynn and other ASK mentors like her, visit Handshake!